Here Comes the Bride

by Carlo Santos,

The recent shift in the yen exchange rate has not gone unnoticed by my wallet. Each time I place a new import order for Japanese magazines, CDs and the like, it feels a little less painful than it used to. I still get killed on shipping costs, though, so maybe if Shinzo Abe really wants to boost the Japanese economy through international trade, he might want to think about having scientists develop a matter teleporter...

Vol. 18
(by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Average student Moritaka Mashiro enjoys drawing for fun. When his classmate and aspiring writer Akito Takagi discovers his talent, he begs Moritaka to team up with him as a manga-creating duo. But what exactly does it take to make it in the manga-publishing world?
Moritaka and Akito complete their new story, Reversi, and hope it will finally lead to their getting an anime. But standing in their way is Eiji Nizuma with his new story, Zombie Gun. This intense head-to-head battle may have ramifications for the entire manga industry!"

At last, the matchup everyone's been waiting for: Mashiro and Takagi facing off against mad genius Nizuma on equal terms. The great thing about this storyline is that it isn't just about rival manga-ka—it's also about the jockeying between their editors. Office politics can be just as compelling as what happens in the Art Studio: Who gets to be serialized first? Should they run weekly or monthly? How are the reader surveys turning out? Still, the heart and soul of Bakuman. obviously lies with its creators. Drama unfolds as Mashiro faces the pressures of deadline hell, and readers can learn plenty from his spirited debates with Takagi: Should we let the series run long, or keep it punchy and short? Is the villain an interesting enough character? Clearly, even successful artists never stop trying to improve. Visually, the series fares best during outbursts of emotion, stretching the characters' faces and bodies to match their mood. Whether it's the protagonists expressing shock, editors arguing in the boardroom, or lovebirds Hiramaru and Aoki stealing the show, these outward displays prove that a workplace slice-of-life story can also have plenty of heart.

I'm just going to bring up the dialogue again because it's practically a tradition by now. Yes, the characters in Bakuman. talk too much, and it's especially bad when the editors are chattering about who gets to work on what series, and how they're going to schedule the next few issues. Drama in the boardroom is interesting; day-to-day operations, not so much. Even the lead characters, who get to work on the fun, creative stuff, sometimes fall into the trap of overanalyzing every little detail of the process. Then there are the story elements that barely matter, but still end up taking space: the artistic connection between Mashiro his late uncle is explored further, but adds little to the story aside from puffed-up sentimentality. The promise of marriage between Mashiro and up-and-coming voice actress Azuki is another subplot that could just as easily be ignored and the series would still be plenty entertaining. Unnecessary fluff has an impact on the artwork as well—the piles and piles of dialogue force many scenes into small panels that limit the action.

It'll never get away from the dialogue problem, but the main-character rivalry and the flow of ideas makes for a storyline compelling enough to earn a B+.

Vol. 4
(by Kaoru Mori, Yen Press, $16.99)

"Acclaimed creator Kaoru Mori's tale of life on the nineteenth-century Silk Road turns westward, following Englishman Mr. Smith on his long journey to Ankara. Passing through a fishing village along the Aral Sea, Smith and his guide encounter a pair of spirited young girls named Laila and Leily—identical twins who are fishing not for sturgeon, but for husbands! Despite their efforts to find two wealthy, healthy, and handsome brothers to wed, Laila and Leily's plans generally only land them in loads of trouble!"

Who says historical fiction has to be strict and stuffy? Volume 4 of A Bride's Story is the liveliest one yet, full of pratfalls and comedy, but at the same time still true to its Central Asian setting. The twins, despite being brand-new characters, are instantly likeable thanks to their fun-loving, rambunctious attitude. Things only get more hilarious when they set up a bunch of ill-fated schemes to score themselves some husbands. But this series doesn't survive on levity alone—as the story progresses, it also becomes a thoughtful chronicle of family life, as Laila and Leily's father starts to seriously consider how he's ever going to marry off the terrible twosome. The last couple of chapters, where prospective suitors do their best to make a good impression and wedding preparations are made, prove to be just as sweet as the previous chapters were silly. Through it all, Kaoru Mori's art is stunningly precise: elaborate costumes are drawn down to the last little tassel, while sweeping wilderness scenes capture the beauty of rural life. But the real visual highlight, at least in this story arc, is the twins' nonstop energy and their delightful, expressive faces.

What's up with the pointless first chapter? Even though Mr. Smith has moved on, and new characters take center stage, Mori apparently feels obligated to keep readers updated on the series' original bride and her relatives. That's how we end up with an entire chapter about a family nobody's really interested in anymore, striking a shady deal with a powerful clan, and plotting revenge at some point in the future. It doesn't add much to the story, and the scenes of sinister-looking family elders talking clan politics are not what make this series compelling. Meanwhile, the twins' storyline isn't perfect either—their wacky schemes are fun on the first go-round, but after multiple variations of trying to meet a rich and handsome guy, it starts converging on repetitive gag-manga territory. (Thankfully, they stop just in time so that the story can actually develop...) Their saga also takes a brief detour into uninteresting clan politics, with fathers arguing over dowries and whatnot. Meanwhile, the usually entertaining Mr. Smith gets only a minor role play this time, which is a bit of a letdown.

Although the first chapter is a miss, the rest of this volume upholds the series' high standards, even adding comedy to the usual slice-of-life warmth. Score it an A-.

Vol. 8
(by Q Hayashida, Viz Media, $12.99)

"A blood-spattered battle between diabolical sorcerers and the monsters they created!
The Professor's found the home of his estranged wife, but there's no sign of her in the tiny cottage. Hot on the Professor's heels, Shin and Noi find themselves in serious trouble with the home's new occupants: a gang of En's rivals with powerful abilities. Meanwhile, political intrigue boils among the demons in hell, and Caiman and Nikaido try to repair their friendship after a vicious and near-fatal duel. Fujita inches closer to his long-awaited revenge against Caiman, Risu inches closer to the leader of the Cross-Eyes, and Ebisu inches closer to her past in this highly anticipated volume of Dorohedoro!"

Violent, dystopian, revenge-driven manga is pretty common—but none is as weirdly humorous as Dorohedoro, which gleefully marches on while refusing to take itself too seriously. Separated partners have a cheerful reunion as one of them is about to be decapitated. A dispute over rent is resolved by an accidental stray projectile. En and his supposedly evil gang of Sorcerers have a jolly time fantasizing in a drug-induced dream. And a "gyoza fairy" living in Nikaido's hole-in-the-wall café makes for the strangest, silliest bonus chapter ever. It's so absurd, one almost forgets the series still has a serious story to tell: suspense builds up as Caiman draws closer to his past, scams and betrayals are revealed among the Cross-Eye gang, and a flashback about ex-gangster Risu helps to fill out his character. This volume also dishes out plenty of intense fight scenes—loose, scratchy lines and gritty details capture the raw energy of hand-to-hand combat. A mix and match of different fighting techniques also adds visual interest: acrobatic moves, flashy weaponry, and knockout punches all happen in this volume. An elaborate backdrop of run-down streets and creepy forests is icing on the cake.

Dorohedoro is a series with many moving parts ... but only a few of them seem to work at any one time. The first few chapters of this volume are horribly chaotic, jumping from one fight scene to another as it tries to finish up the "mysterious house in the woods" arc. Outside of that scenario, the storyline ends up visiting other characters and subplots that are near-irrelevant. (Remember the guy who helped Nikaido escape En's mansion? Nope, no one cares about him anymore.) Even the parts that are worth it, like En and his subordinates going off into dreamland, get interrupted by time-killing segments like the Professor and company hanging out together. Oh, and the main storyline—Caiman and Nikaido's quest to find out Caiman's past—is another disappointment, as they seem to be just wandering from town to town, meeting odd people who might help them. When minor characters are getting into more fights and intrigue than the protagonists, something's wrong. The busy artwork is another problem—the characters and their actions might be visually striking, but their strange outfits and implements sometimes get mixed up with all the background clutter.

It has its moments of fun, but doesn't do enough to move the story forward. This collection of plot fragments is worth about a C.

Vol. 2
(by Milk Morinaga, Seven Seas, $17.99)

"Super-cute and popular high school girl Ohashi Akko has transformed her new friend Mariko in more ways than one. Not only has she introduced Mariko to a new circle of friends and helped her overcome her shyness and sense of isolation, but both girls have awakened feelings they never knew they had.
In the course of their evolving relationship, Akko and Mariko have struggled against every type of hurdle one would expect from a burgeoning romance between two High School Girls. One question remains: are they ready to face the world as a couple?"

If Volume 1 didn't make a strong enough case, the second and final Girl Friends omnibus emphatically proves that true love transcends gender. The ups and downs of Akko and Mari's relationship are universal, and most importantly, real—the anxiety over confessing one's feelings, the elation of finally getting together, the uncertainty over each other's futures. But their situation also leads to unique challenges, which the series handles with maturity and grace: explaining things to friends who assume heterosexuality by default, or venturing into the topic of sex. Akko and Mari's classmates make a fun supporting cast, taking up familiar personality types like the dreaded girl who won't shut up about her boyfriend or the unrepentant anime freak. Jealousy and misunderstanding heightens the drama over the last several chapters, yet the ending is as sweet as any fan could hope for. The art is simple, but creative enough to be interesting—from distinctive character designs (hairstyles are the key) to panel layouts that vary in shape and size. What's more, the subtle shading and linework during Akko and Mari's personal moments prove that even a high school relationship can make a touching, beautiful artistic statement.

Sadly, this great romantic saga also wastes lots of time on overused clichés. Most notable is the "I liked you then, but I don't like you now" turnaround, which only serves to delay the main couple from getting together. Akko and Mari bluff their way through about four chapters like this, unable to reciprocate each other's feelings and only frustrating readers in the process. The story also bring out old chestnuts like "You've been hanging out with someone else" and "I thought we would always be together," desperately trying to spin new ideas out of formulaic situations. Meanwhile, the antics of Akko and Mari's classmates prove to be mostly a mindless distraction, especially during the school trip arc. That storyline seems more dedicated to showing the girls gossiping and hanging out, rather than focusing on the protagonists' relationship and how things are changing for them. And while the art is easy on the eyes, it sometimes errs on the side of being too simple, looking flat and unpolished during school-life scenes. At the same time, however, the action going on in a single page also leads to chaotic-looking layouts.

Absolutely beautiful when it focuses on the main couple's relationship, but the side-character distractions and moments of banality get in the way. Fortunately it still has enough charm to get a B.

Vol. 9
(by Naoko Takeuchi, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)

"Amidst the chaos caused by Usagi and Chibi-Usa's body swap, courtesy of the Amazoness PallaPalla, the Sailor Guardians' primary concern remains Mamoru's illness and its possible link to the newcomers in town, the Dead Moon Circus. The Amazonesses and their circus animal lackeys go after the guardians one by one, tempting them with false visions. However, each of the Sailors manage to defeat the enemy after their inner selves show them their individual heart crystals and new weapons. Meanwhile, it is still a toss-up who the 'young maiden' is that Elysion priest Helios seeks: She who shall find and unlock the Golden Crystal that will save Earth, Elysion, and Mamoru!"

In this volume, Sailor Moon turns its attention back to the Inner Guardians, showing that there's still much to learn about Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and Venus. More than just Sailor Moon's sidekicks, they have their own dreams and loved ones, and fighting for those dreams is what makes these chapters so engaging. Sure, there's plenty of magical combat to enjoy on the outside, but the inner conflict—where each girl must choose between selfish desire or looking out for others—gives the storyline true depth. It also helps that the artwork portrays such moments effectively: the soft lines and subtle tones lend a dreamy quality to these psychological explorations, and seeing the characters confronting their "true selves" creates a concrete image for an abstract concept. Then, of course, there's the thrill of glittering explosions and newfound attacks when our heroines snap out of it. Meanwhile, Naoko Takeuchi makes sure that the overarching plot points still matter: the threat of the Dead Moon Kingdom and Helios' quest to protect Elysion (it'll make sense once you read it) are mentioned often, and a dramatic last chapter proves that the Outer Guardians aren't forgotten ...

After breaking the series wide open in the last few volumes, it's disappointing to see Sailor Moon lapse back into episodic mode. With each new chapter, the enemies' predictable tactics—followed by equally predictable responses—fail to stir up much excitement. Everyone knows who's going to win; it's just a matter of waiting to see when it happens. Even when the girls already know it's a trap, they go charging in anyway, stirring up an unneeded ruckus. The pressure to make every fight scene as epic as possible leads to messy visuals, where flying sparkles and gusts of wind become more important than simply showing how each attack works and who's winning. What's more, the layouts can look cluttered with so many little flourishes strewn across the backgrounds. This emphasis on repetitive, one-at-a-time battles also drags down the big-picture storyline: even though the Dead Moon menace and the Elysion crisis are mentioned frequently, they don't make much progress. We just get reminded several times that the Earth is in trouble—and the full explanation comes in the form of a droning monologue full of mumbo-jumbo fantasy ideas.

All right, so the plot goes into autopilot for a bit here. But the high-energy magical battles, along with fresh enemies and a gradually evolving story arc, are still worth a B.

(by Scott Westerfeld, Devin Grayson and Steven Cummings, Del Rey, $10.99)

"In Pretties, Tally Youngblood and her daring best friend, Shay, both underwent the operation that turned them from ordinary Uglies into stunning beauties. Now this thrilling new graphic novel reveals Shay's perspective on living in New Pretty Town ... and the way she sees it, there's more to this so-called paradise than meets the eye.
With the endless parties and custom-made clothes, life as a Pretty should be perfect. Yet Shay doesn't feel quite right. She has little to no memory of her past; it's as if something in her brain has inexplicably changed. When she reunites with Tally and the Crims—her rebellious group of friends from Uglyville—she begins to recall their last departure to the wild, and the headstrong leader she used to be. And as she remembers the truth about what doomed their escape, Shay decides to fight back—against the status quo, against the mysterious Special Circumstances, even against her own best friend."

Practically every young-adult fiction franchise these days is about a rebellious protagonist battling an evil conformist society, so what does Uglies do to stand out? It has the heroine actually join that conformist society. Shay's brand new life is an eye-opening glimpse into the Pretty world that never would have been possible if she'd just stayed in the wilderness and lived off the land like in the entire first book. The story bursts forth with ideas as it shows what kind of goofy gadgets and lifestyles might exist in this plastic, lobotomized world. But as Shay tries to fight these elements of social control, the suspense and drama start creeping in. Suppressed memories come back, the truth starts to nag at her, and all of Shay's friendships tumble into chaos, just as planned. The fanciful, high-tech setting of New Pretty Town makes for plenty of unique visuals: a dizzying ascent up a communications tower, an ice-skating rink suspended in mid-air, and of course, the characters' bizarre fashion choices. But the moments of Shay's rebellion—her "cutting" gesture, and a dramatic hoverboard chase—give us the images that will stick strongest after the final page.

Want to be bored? Want to feel like a useless bystander, wondering where all the real action is happening? Then read the first half of this book. Uglies: Cutters reveals the dangers of being a spinoff work: sometimes, an alternate character's viewpoint just isn't very interesting. Discovering the ins and outs of the Pretty world has it moments, but all the mindless socializing and talking in a made-up teenybopper language soon gets tiresome. One might even start to wonder if Shay has forgotten her rebellious self—well, it's there, but she doesn't really get "bubbly" until the halfway mark. As the plot starts to thicken, one of the other problems of being a spinoff crops up: this stuff doesn't make proper sense without the accompanying novel. The drama between Shay and Tally is plenty exciting, yet they argue about things that didn't happen in the graphic novels, making it feel like parts of the story are missing. The characters' turbulent emotions sometimes look too forced on their wide-eyed, pouty-lipped faces (blame it on the Botox), while the action scenes lack enough speedlines and effects to create a true sense of motion.

Still a fascinating take on the conflict between living a controlled, "safe" life and taking on the dangers of the world—but a dull first half and several story gaps take away some of the luster.

It's been a recent dry spell for Readers' Choice, so please don't forget that RTO is always looking for submissions from all you manga fans out there. Whether it's a series you love, hate, or have mixed opinions about, your reviews are more than welcome—and make up an essential part of this column.

This week, we have a return visitor as black mokona shares another great series that deserves more attention. Will it capture your interest?

(by Takeshi Natsuhara and Kuromaru, Shogakukan, ¥530 ea.)

No, not that Kurosagi. Kurosagi, sometimes KurosagiThe Black Swindler, is a criminally lesser-known manga (of course, well-known is relative with manga) about a twenty-something named Kurosaki, who swindles other swindlers. His family was bankrupted by a so-called "white swindler" who specializes in financial scams. His father proceeded to commit murder-suicide, killing himself, Kurosaki's sister, and Kurosaki's mother. Kurosaki survived tragedy, resolving to punish every white swindler he can while slowly falling in love with his tenant, a perky law undergrad.

Which sets the stage for ... a charming, if unambitious procedural. Kurosaki almost invariably goes to interview the swindled, approaches the swindlers, and pulls a fast one on them while they're trying to pull a fast one on him. Every once in a while the author refers back to Kurosaki's murky past, lest we rightly believe that we're really going nowhere. Absurd amounts of money, as well as excessive prey/predator metaphors get involved along the way.

So Kurosagi is remarkably like Detective Conan in this way, though whether or not its cases are remotely realistic remains to be seen. How would I know, I have never swindled or murdered anyone, but the idea of unveiling scams step by step is fascinating and educational and utterly fresh for those weary of murder mysteries nonetheless. Perhaps they're cautionary tales—don't be so greedy, don't be so trusting—perhaps they're mindless entertainment, but, the point is, that's your hook, and it works. Kurosaki is already versed in his trade's tricks, so traded in for investigative suspense is departure from the inevitable, frustrating buildup to the big reveal followed by lengthy monologues, classic Agatha Christie style. Kurosagi isn't better than Detective Conan, it's just different. Sometimes it's stuck in a rut, but that's a rutty formula no other manga can claim. Hey, it totally preceded Leverage.

If I could continue with my Detective Conan comparison here, I will point out that while Kurosagi lacks the thrill and the suspense, it's more nuanced with characterization and slightly more sophisticated with its drama. Kurosaki, goofy and sarcastic, cocky and intelligent but not a genius, prone to posturing but not given to overwrought reactions, in turn aware and ignorant of his failings, and quiet in his affection, is achingly real in the way that Shinichi Gary-Stu Kudo is not. And by drama I am in no way referring to the exaggerated family-of-the-bereaved bullshit, but the internal struggles of the characters. Kurosaki reluctantly works for the very man who ruined his father. In one daring story-arc, Kurosaki meets a woman who was, like himself, the man's victim. Incidentally, she was also the man's former lover. Appropriate and inappropriate parallels are drawn, but coming out of the confrontation, Kurosaki seems at once enraged that the man doesn't have him in his eyes, pleased to be praised by him, and having to remind himself not to trust him. It's the most aggrieved he has looked throughout, so, undertone much?

Four years after its debut, the series recieved the 2008 Shogakukan Manga Award for seinen/general manga. It makes sense, seeing as how even as the tricks become staler, the manga becomes more involving. Arcs, as of volume twelve-ish, span entire volumes and not the staple 3-5 chapters, something Detective Conan never quite escaped, and they are complicated, emotional exercises. Furthermore, the writing team has a grasp on comedic timing as well as careful exposition. The manga is not overly dark or light-hearted; Kuromaru and Natsuhara juggle moods magnificently. The art is attractive in its economical efficiency, crisp and expressive, and Kurosaki is frankly delectable in a suit. The cover's use of color takes getting used to and does improve over time, but is very well laid out and the black skin looks cool anyway.

Kurosagi is currently: not licensed by any English publisher; not likely to be licensed by any English publisher; being scanlated by the trickle; available in quite a number of Asian languages; and occupying a permanent place in my heart.

Is there a hidden gem of manga you'd like to reveal to the world? Is there a piece of garbage that deserves to be bashed in public? Or is there a title that didn't get a fair grade here, and you want to set the record straight?

Now's YOUR chance to be the reviewer! Write a review of about 300-400 words (a little more or less is fine) and include:

- your name.
- Title of manga (and volume no., if applicable)
- Author/Artist
- Publisher
- Briefly describe the story, then explain why this manga is great, terrible, or in between. Be objective, but also be entertaining.

Then send it in to rtoreaders (at) gmail (dot) com (plain text format preferred). One review will be selected out of all the submissions and will be published in the next column. All types of manga and manga-inspired comickry are accepted, from past and present, from Japan and beyond—what matters is that it's the Reader's Choice! NOTE: Submissions may be edited for formatting and grammar.

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